As regular readers know, I think populist appeals have their place in politics, but Rod Dreher nails what's so grating about Michelle Obama's shtick: It's shot through with self-pity. First, he quotes Byron York, following her through Ohio:
“I know we’re spending — I added it up for the first time — we spend between the two kids, on extracurriculars outside the classroom, we’re spending about $10,000 a year on piano and dance and sports supplements and so on and so forth,” Mrs. Obama tells the women. “And summer programs. That’s the other huge cost. Barack is saying, ‘Whyyyyyy are we spending that?’ And I’m saying, ‘Do you know what summer camp costs?’”
There's a lot more lines like this one in the York piece - all fair enough, so far as they go (it is stressful and expensive to be a Bobo parent), but perhaps not just the thing to say to women in a depressed blue-collar town. And then there's this line, from this week's New Yorker profile:
From these bleak generalities, Obama moves into specific complaints. Used to be, she will say, that you could count on a decent education in the neighborhood. But now there are all these charter schools and magnet schools that you have to “finagle” to get into. (Obama herself attended a magnet school, but never mind.) Health care is out of reach (“Let me tell you, don’t get sick in America”), pensions are disappearing, college is too expensive, and even if you can figure out a way to go to college you won’t be able to recoup the cost of the degree in many of the professions for which you needed it in the first place. “You’re looking at a young couple that’s just a few years out of debt,” Obama said. “See, because, we went to those good schools, and we didn’t have trust funds. I’m still waiting for Barack’s trust fund. Especially after I heard that Dick Cheney was s’posed to be a relative or something. Give us something here!”
There are many sorts of populism, from the optimistic (think Reagan, or LBJ) to the angry and doom-ridden (think John Edwards). But a self-pitying populism, in which a Princeton-educated, upper-middle-class woman - or a wealthy woman, really; Michelle Obama earned roughly $400,000 in 2005 - equates her own struggles to pay off her college loans with the woes of the working class seems like a remarkably unappealing variation on the theme. (Like Rod, I didn't much care for Edwards' Kingfish act, but at least he went out of his way to acknowledge both his humble beginnings and how lucky he is now.) Not that the upper-middle class doesn't have its struggles too; God knows I whine to my friends about how how hard I work from time to time. But it's mildly inappropriate to whinge about those struggles publicly, and extremely inappropriate to whine about them in the context of a political campaign. It's like having Judith Warner campaigning to be First Lady.